BOOTLEG FILES 463: “The UFO Incident” (1975 made-for-television film starring James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons).
LAST SEEN: The entire film is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Never officially released for home entertainment viewing.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A well-regarded film that fell through the cracks.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: That would be great.
Yes, I am doing another UFO-related film. And this one is, quite frankly, among the most memorable of the genre.
On September 19, 1961, Barney and Betty Hill were driving home to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, from a vacation in Montreal. As they headed down the Granite State’s Route 3, they noticed something unusual in the sky. What happened next has been the subject of controversy for the past half-century, with the Hills offering the first public claims of alien abduction. The Hills’ experience became the subject of John Fuller’s best-selling 1966 book called “The Interrupted Journey,” and in 1975 the book was adapted into a made-for-television film called “The UFO Incident.”
“The UFO Incident” was unusual on two levels. For starters, the Hills were an interracial couple and the film cast James Earl Jones as Barney and Estelle Parsons as Betty. Although the screenplay touched briefly on some of the racial tensions that weighed on the Hills’ marriage in the early 1960s, “The UFO Incident” marked the first time that an interracial couple was at the center of a film that was not specifically about race relations.
Second, “The UFO Incident” was not presented as a science-fiction film, even though extra-terrestrials were the driving force of the plot. Indeed, the film was more than half over before the aliens showed up on screen. Instead, the film is framed as a psychological mystery that attempts to decipher just what happened to the Hills on that dark and isolated New Hampshire road.
“The UFO Incident” opens with the Hills driving through the night in a furious attempt to locate the site where they saw the UFO in 1961. They are unable to find the exact spot of the incident, and they are frustrated over their shared inability to recall what took place during the time between their sighting of the UFO and their arrival home with torn clothing and scuffed shoes. Somewhat reluctantly, they agree to see a psychologist named Dr. Benjamin Simon (played by Barnard Hughes).
The first half of “The UFO Incident” carefully lays the foundation of the Hills’ lives prior to their encounter with the UFO. Dr. Simon hypnotizes Barney and Betty separately, and he realizes that each carries significant insecurities. Barney, as a black man in an overwhelmingly white community, feels isolated and is eager for any pleasant social connection. The middle-aged Betty is ill at ease over her not-very-youthful appearance and, on one loud occasion, becomes hostile over Barney’s insecurities.
When the Hills claim to physically encounter the aliens, each takes on a very different perspective. Barney sees the extra-terrestrials as a link to a higher level that previously eluded mankind. “Maybe they will prove the existence of God,” he says while under hypnosis. “Isn’t it funny, to prove the existence of God on some other planet?”
For Betty, however, the alien encounter unleashes a more visceral reaction that mixes fear and anger. Whereas Barney’s skin is probed with a scalpel that doesn’t appear to create incisions, Betty is injected through her navel with an instrument that causes her to scream in pain. She is also more vocal with the alien abductors, and even gets into a fight over their promise to give her a book as evidence of their visit.
The beauty of “The UFO Incident” is watching the three leading actors undergo torrents of wild emotions. Jones swings dramatically between the nervous affability of Barney’s daily persona to a tearful near-hysteria as he recalls the abduction during the hypnosis process. Parsons’ Betty gives the impression of being high-strung in both her daily persona and her hypnotized state, yet she holds herself magnificently with a steely determination to stare down all problems in her path. She may be strident and high-decibel, but she is no weakling. For his part, Hughes’ psychologist is both intrigued and aghast at what his hypnotism sessions bring out – the subtle shifts in his reaction to the Hills’ incredibly bizarre stories is a masterwork of low-key acting that makes him an equal to Jones’ and Parsons’ more dramatic outbursts.
As a 1970s made-for-television film, “The UFO Incident” was created in a low-budget environment that prevented fancy production values. This is easily overlooked in the hypnosis sequences, thanks to the force of the acting and director Richard A. Colla’s emphasis on tight close-ups. And it can also be overlooked in the scenes where the Hills witness the UFO – the viewer doesn’t see the spacecraft, which allows the imagination to fill in whatever it is that the Hills claim to have witnessed.
Alas, the film stumbles by showing the aliens up close. The make-up for the aliens is cheaply done and not all that impressive – bald heads, grayish skin and slanted eyes – and it might have been more effective if the beings were kept in shadows or glimpsed from behind. This approach would have mirrored the conclusion that Dr. Simon (and, for that matter, the film’s creators) reached – they have no idea just what really happened to the Hills. “The UFO Incident” does not affirm that aliens abducted the Hills, but it also cannot explain the bizarre memories that they offered under hypnosis. What really happened up on Route 3? Well, dear viewer, that is for you to decide.
“The UFO Incident” was produced by Universal Pictures’ television production branch and premiered on NBC-TV on October 20, 1975; it has been rebroadcast on local stations and cable networks over the years. But for unclear reasons, it has never been made available in an official home entertainment release. Perhaps there might be some underlying rights issue with the John Fuller book that inspired the film? Or maybe Universal never thought the film had any home entertainment release value? In many ways, its absence is as mysterious as the Hills’ claims.
Bootleg copies of “The UFO Incident” can be found on a number of collector-to-collector and UFO-obsession websites, and YouTube has unauthorized postings of the entire film. No matter how you arrive at the film, it is worth examining and pondering.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!